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Mithila art: A short introduction

Mithila art: A short introduction

Mithila is an ancient and artistic land on the map of the world with a rich and renowned cultural legacy. Janakpur, its capital and now the capital of Madhes Province, is a living museum of magnificent arts and crafts. Religious themes are the prime source of inspiration behind the emergence of Mithila art and its religious reference often goes back to the Bhagwat Puran.

Shashibhushan Chaudhary, in his book titled ‘Ethnic Settlement in Ancient India’, writes, “The Bhagwat refers to the Maithili in general” and says its inhabitants were skilled in arts and crafts.

However, it is impossible to trace the exact origin of Mithila art. The excavation and exploration at Murtiya of Sarlahi district, Simraungarh of Bara, Dhanushadham of Dhanusha, and Matihani and Jaleshwor of Mahottari, all located in the Madhes, apparently show that the colossal folk images of various gods and goddesses are made of stone. And these images and idols found in these places obviously bear religious overtones. They are the obvious manifestations of the work of both imagination and spirituality.

Maithil people, traditionally religious minded, paint the images of their favorite gods and goddesses like Shiva, Krishna, Hanuman, Kali, Ganesh, Vishnu and their vehicles too. They also paint pictures of newlyweds seated in a palanquin surrounded by the wedding party. During the wedding ceremony, an auspicious occasion in Maithil society, local people create very special objects of art known as ‘Kohabar’. 

A separate room is set and decorated tastefully with several motifs for its celebration. This painting is done in the inner as well as outer walls of the Kohabar Ghar (honeymoon house). As a popular social practice, its main motto is to increase sexual potency and fertility of newly-married bride and bridegroom. This special painting is drawn on the walls of the house in three places: The Gosaighar (special room for family gods), the Kohabar Gharak-Koniya (corridor or outside of the Kohabar Ghar) and especially decorated and designed for a newly married couple’s room.

These wall paintings are wonderfully depicted by the illiterate women folk of Mithila, and they are quite attractive to look at. They express their artistic sentiments and skills on various occasions, the outer walls of Kohabar are decorated with the paintings of rural life such as a palanquin with its four carriers, shady fruit trees like those of mango, banana, Kadamba and Ashoka. They also paint love-scenes of Lord Krishna and his constant companion Radha with Gopinis. The use of the mango branch or leaves is frequent during the wedding rites of Maithil society. Mango twigs are also used for lighting the sacred fire to purify the Kohabar Ghar. 

Tying the wedding booth with mango leaves customarily signifies the importance of the mango tree as a source of fertility. The newly married couple spends the night of Chaturthy (fourth night of marriage) at Kohabar Ghar. Traditionally, it is mandatory for the married couple to celebrate their marriage in the Kohabar Ghar in the presence of all the deities and umpteen sacred symbols of fertility depicted around the walls of their houses. The bridegroom’s Kohabar has only satt pattas (seven leaves) against 15 leaves in the bride’s Kohabar. This motif of Mithila art is painted in yellow. These paintings can be categorized into two types.

Firstly, the depiction of favorite gods and their consorts like Shiva and Parvati, Radha and Krishna, and Vishnu and Lakshmi, who are believed to bring blessings to newly married couples, and secondly, there are various sketches of animals and plants like elephants, fish, parrots, turtles, bamboo and lotus, which imply fertility as well as peace and prosperity. It is believed that paintings of these symbols bring good fortunes to newly married couples and also bless them to have progeny.

Nature, being the perfect and perennial source of inspiration, is the main theme of Mithila art. So, the women folk of Mithila often depict lovely flowers like the lotus and its leaves, bamboo and the betel leaf. They also like to paint animals like horses, elephants, peacocks and so on as well as gods and goddesses. All these carry symbolic significance in Mithila art. The elephant, horse and palanquin, for example, suggest royalty and richness while the sun and moon are the symbols of good luck. The bamboo represents the future and stands for progeny and prosperity. It also stands for purity and prosperity. 

As the humid climate of the Tarai flatland is suitable for bamboo cultivation, the traditional Mithila paintings depicting sparrows gamboling in bamboo groves is a popular motif. Another important aspect of Mithila painting is Aripan or Aipan in the Maithili language. It is also called Alpna. It is like Rangoli. A kind of floor painting, it is depicted on various auspicious occasions such as janau or Vratbandh (the sacred thread ceremony), Chhathiyar (sixth day rites of a newborn). Mundan (tonsuring ceremony of a child), puberty, conception, initiation into learning, and marriage. 

Coincidently, this form of Mithila art is also drawn in several parts of neighboring India under different names like Alpna in West Bengal, Mandala in Rajasthan and Rangoli in Gujarat. In Bhojpuri areas of Nepal and India, it is famous as Chaukpurna,while in the whole Mithila region it is known as Aripan.

Besides Kohabar and Aripan, Mithila folk art has five distinctive styles — Bharni, Katchni, Tantric, Godna (tatoos), Gobar (Cow dung painting).

Now they are also depicted on clothes, handmade papers and canvases, utensils, pen stands, table clothes and generally they depict various gods and goddesses and other village deities for satisfaction and gratification and fulfillment of local people’s inner desires. Nowadays, they also paint the popular story of Raja Salhesh (Salhesh, the king of Dusadh caste). These paintings are also suitable and sustainable for women’s empowerment.